At the first meeting of the World Health Organization’s governing body since Covid-19 stormed the globe, China is set to be challenged on two of its most sensitive issues: The Communist Party’s initial handling of the virus and the status of Taiwan’s participation.
While the U.S. has launched a daily barrage of attacks on China, including suggesting the virus escaped from a laboratory in the central city of Wuhan, the European Union and Australia are set to play a key role pushing for a probe into the virus’s origin when the World Health Assembly — the WHO’s decision making body — gathers on Monday for an annual meeting in Geneva.
A U.S.-backed bloc is also pushing for Taiwan, whose handling of the virus has been a rare success story, to attend the meeting as an observer. The move — aimed at strengthening Taiwan’s official and unofficial diplomatic relationships — has angered China, which views the island as a province and has long sought to isolate it on the world stage.
The showdown reflects a broader geopolitical struggle pitting the U.S. and its allies against China, whose authoritarian system has come under scrutiny in the wake of a pandemic that has killed about 300,000 people and devastated the global economy. The U.S. has suspended funding for the WHO, claiming it’s biased toward China, and even suggested setting up an alternative body.
Yet for all the noise, most analysts expect China to command support from a large swathe of the nearly 200 countries taking part in the assembly that need good relations with the world’s second-biggest economy to shore up domestic growth. And any effort to replace the WHO is also unlikely to gain traction.
“As much as the WHO has struggled and been the subject of criticism in this crisis, any replacement would look remarkably similar to what we have today,” said Natasha Kassam, a former Australian diplomat in China who is now a research fellow at the Lowy Institute in Sydney. “It is hard to imagine an effective global health institution that excluded China, and it’s hard to imagine the United Statesmaking Taiwan’s participation a red line.”
Still, the anger in some parts of the world over China’s response to the pandemic is still fresh, and will likely play out this week. Apart from an initial cover up, the world has become increasingly upset with China’s heavy-handed response to any criticism.
Australia in particular has felt the heat from Beijing, which threatened a boycott of its goods and also suspended meat imports from four processing plants for “technical” reasons. The government in Canberra called the boycott threats “economic coercion” and hasn’t backed down on its calls for a virus probe.
“You can’t let the trail go cold,” Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison told reporters on May 8. “And I think Australia and the United States and the United Kingdom and countries all around the world would like to know what happened, because we don’t want to see it happen again.”
While the EU was still working out the wording of the proposal in the run-up to the assembly, the European Commission has said a draft resolution envisaged calling for “an independent review on lessons learned from the international health response to the coronavirus.”
Australia has said that could happen through the WHO’s Health Emergencies Program, which was set up after the Ebola crisis in 2014, and the International Health Regulations Review Committee, which assessed the response to the H1N1 pandemic in 2009.
The building acrimony has also made more countries willing to pressure China on Taiwan, which is a red line for authorities in Beijing. President Tsai Ing-wen’s government in Taipei has made a vocal pitch to be included in the proceedings this week, saying it needs access to firsthand information about the spread of the disease.
The WHO has said its Ethiopian director-general, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, has no mandate to offer Taiwan an invitation to the assembly because there is “no clear support” among member states. Tedros in April had accused Taiwan of being behind a racist campaign against him and Africans in general — a charge that Taipei rejected as “slander.”
A proposal backed by 13 member states has called for the assembly to make a call on whether Taiwan can attend. China has blocked Taiwan’s participation in the organization since the independence-leaning Tsai was elected in 2016 and refused to accept that both sides belong to “one China.”
The U.S. is “determined” to see Taiwan participate in the meetings as an observer, with a spokesperson at the U.S. Mission in Geneva saying that lessons from its successful experience fighting Covid-19 “would be of significant benefit to the rest of the world.”
“The People’s Republic of China would rather that success not be shared, no doubt to avoid uncomfortable comparisons,” the spokesperson said.
For its part, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said it “firmly rejects” countries’ proposal to invite Taiwan to attend the assembly, and has also blasted the call for an independent probe into the virus origin as “political maneuvering.”
“Certain countries insisted on discussing proposals involving Taiwan to politicize a public health issue,” Zhao said Friday. “This consequence can only severely interfere with the progress of the conference and undermine international cooperation.”
China is confident that the majority of countries won’t allow Taiwan to participate as an observer, and Beijing would “never” allow an independent investigative team inside its borders, said Shi Yinhong, an adviser to China’s cabinet and also a professor of international relations at Renmin University in Beijing.
“It’s becoming clear that China’s basic stance is to reject criticism, and focus on the efforts it has made in the global fight,” Shi said. “This is a position that China won’t change, hence posing a sharp opposition to the voices of accusing its cover-up and claiming accountability.”
Legally there’s no provision in the WHO’s constitution, resolutions or rules of procedure that would prevent Tedros from inviting Taiwan to the assembly as an observer, said Julian G. Ku, a distinguished professor of constitutional law at Hofstra University, who studies China’s relationship with international law. Since nobody is asking the WHO to invite Taiwan as a member state or to recognize Taiwan as the representative of China, the body’s citation of a 1971 United Nations decision recognizing Beijing is “irrelevant,” he said.
Still, a majority of assembly members are likely to block Taiwan’s participation, according to Kharis Templeman, an adviser to the Project on Taiwan in the Indo-Pacific at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution.
“It’s just a fact of international politics now that most countries aren’t willing to risk their relationship with the PRC to take symbolic actions in support of Taiwan,” he said, referring to China’s formal name. “As long as Beijing makes countries choose between them, Taiwan is going to lose.”
The U.S. can hardly complain about China’s influence in the WHO given that it encouraged Beijing to play a greater role in international organizations for years, said Scott Kennedy, senior adviser and trustee chair in Chinese business and economics at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
“Now the U.S. is crying foul because it turns out Chinese interests don’t align with its own and China is pretty darn good at playing this game,” Kennedy said. “If the U.S. doesn’t want a Chinese-led international order, it needs to do a better job of fighting for its own vision within these organizations.”